The Agricultural Workers Strike
When Arthur Young described the agricultural scene in Hertfordshire in 1804 he recorded that in the Hatfield area weekly wages were between 9s. and 11s. a week while some gentlemen paid 12s. During hay time the pay was a guinea a week and during harvest they would receive between 45s. and 50s., together with food and beer1. Over the years wages remained low, as farm workers has little opportunity for collective bargaining, except at harvest time, while the farmers formed a far more coherent group who had not intention of breaking the tradition of low pay. By the 1860’s there had been some improvement in wages in the county, but they still lagged behind town wages and rural wages elsewhere, and farmers were beginning to worry about the flight of labourers from the land2.
In 1867 Jonathan Cox, of Hill End Farm, Sandridge, told a parliamentary commission3 that “Men work 11 hours a day, and women nine. … Able-bodied labourers have from 11s to 14s a week; boys from 3s 6d to 5s. … boys rarely go to work before they are from 10 to 12 years of age. … Girls are not employed in farm labour, they are engaged in straw plaiting from a very early age. Women, too, are chiefly engaged in plaiting. A few are employed on farms in weeding in summer.” Mr R. Sibley, of Harpenden, said that shepherds were paid 15s a week, carters 13s and day labourers 12s “… with the exception of their earnings in hay time and harvest, which amount to about £3 per annum more. More weekly wages can be and are earned by piecework. Five years later a survey showed that the average weekly wage in Hertfordshire, and neighbouring counties, was between 10s. and 12s. a week. With extras, such as piece work and Sunday working, an able bodied labourer ought to be able to average an extra 2s. to 3s. each week, while cottage rents varied between 1s. and 3s. 6d4.
Not surprisingly there was dissatisfaction at such low wages. By the early 1870’s local agricultural labourers unions were being formed all over the country. On the 29th May, 1872, a conference was held at Leamington at which it was decided to form the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, under the presidency of Joseph Arch. Its aims were to improve the general condition of agricultural labourers, to encourage the formation of branch and district unions, and to improve co-operation between existing unions. Members paid a joining fee of 6d, and 2d weekly and an immediate aim was to raise wages to 16s a week for a 9½ hour working day. This compared with weekly wages in Hertfordshire of between 10s and 12s per week, which could be boasted by about 2s for Sunday and piece work5.
On the same day about 1,500 agricultural labourers attended a meeting in the Plait Hall, Luton. Many men spoke of their experiences and William Paul, of Sandridge, said that he had seen a great deal of oppression in agricultural districts, men having 9s and 10s a week to keep a wife and 7 children. Had known families to have only ½lb of meat a week. If sick they were told by the relieving officer they must go into the house. At the present price of provisions 10s, 11s and 12s was not enough for a man to live upon. At the end of the meeting 425 men joined the South Beds and Herts Agricultural Labourers Union.
Within days handbills appeared in the St Albans area. These were headed “Unity is Strength”, and invited agricultural labourers “who want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” to attend a meeting on No-Mans-Land Common, Sandridge, on the evening of 6th June6. A crowd of some 500 farm labourers, their wives, some buxom country lasses and some children, turned up. The chair of the meeting was taken by William Paul, a carpenter from Sandridge. The speakers included Mr. George Butcher, a respectable-looking labouring man from Sharpenhoe who had been at the Leamington conference, and the Rev. O. W. Davys, rector of Wheathampstead. The latter spoke in favour of farm labourers getting more money, so that they could spend more in the shops of the butcher and baker, but he antagonised the audience by saying that he was convinced that nine-tenths of the misery, and wretchedness, and poverty of the labouring classes arose from the fact that they did not take sufficient care of their money, but gave a large portion of it to the publicans. A number of the labourers spoke of the difficulties they faced. For instance William Payne said that although he had a wife and family of seven children he was only receiving twelve shillings a week. Of this 9s 9d went for bread, 2s for rent, and 2s for firing. This was not a half-penny for each of them for the three meals a day, and it was impossible for him to pay his way as he went. Joseph Allen’s wages had been recently raised from 11s to 12s a week. He quoted from the scriptures and commented that many had been obliged to work hard all day, and sometimes had nothing but a piece of bread and sometimes a red herring. (laughter and a voice “That’s about right, Joe”). A labourer named Oakley proposed a resolution pledging the labourers at the meeting to join the Union, and this was enthusiastically carried.
There was a similar meeting at Harpenden on 11th June, which was attended by about 800 people and it was reported that several hundred labourers in the district had joined the union. Mr Butcher also said he was happy to receive applications from any labourers who wished to emigrate to New Zealand. He pointed out that they could get free or assisted passages and they would be able to obtain land of their own at a cheap rate and live comfortably7. A fortnight later there was another meeting at Colney Heath.
On the evening of 29th July there was a meeting on Bernard’s Heath8. It was well attended by both labourers and also by tradesmen and others from St Albans who had come to watch. Unfortunately the meeting became rather rowdy, and when someone in the audience shouted out criticisms of one of the speakers he was knocked down and kicked. There were shouts of “duck him” and he would have ended up in one of the nearby water-filled disused brick pits if William Paul had not intervened. Two months later, on 1st October, another meeting was planned to be held on the Heath at 4 o’clock, to listen to the leader of the union movement, Joseph Arch9. Unfortunately many of the local labourers could not leave work early to attend the meeting, which did not start until about 6 o’clock, when some 100 were present. Mr Willis, of Luton, took the chair, and noted that some who might have attended were under pressure not to do so. In a long speech Joseph Arch said that “If they, by honest industry and toil, brought wealth into the market: then in all fairness they ought to have a fair living, and a fair day’s wage for a fair days pay ... if there was a school for every child, so long as the children were taken away at eight years of age, how could they expect them to grow up intelligent and respectable members of society. ... He concluded by an earnest appeal to all present to stick to the union, and to abandon the ale-house.”
The next day Joseph Arch spoke to about 1000 labourers at the Plait Hall, Luton10. One of the speakers came from Sandridge and was about to emigrate from the area. He said that he had made a speech at No-Mans-Land some time back, and on that account his master had turned him out (and he had not been able to get other work, because of what his former employer had said of him).
Early in March, 1873, a meeting was held in the Corn Exchange, St Albans, to set up a branch of the South Beds and Herts District of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, in the town. Mr G. Butcher, the organising secretary for the district, “urged all to become members of the association, telling them that they would in no way suffer thereby, for if they could prove to the satisfaction of the committee that they were discharged, or in any way oppressed, by becoming members of the union, they would at once be removed to another place, where plenty of work could be had.” William Paul, of Sandridge, reported that “The movement had done good in his neighbourhood, and already forty-two men had been sent out of the district. This made the farmers so short of men that they must give more money or the rest would go. They had already obtained another shilling, and he might say that they would no be satisfied till they had 2s more, and were paid at the rate of 15s per week.”11
In the middle of March the farmers in Sandridge were served with a circular asking for an advance of 2s. per week. This was ignored, as was a request that the farmers should meet the labourers to discuss the matter. The union issued a further notice saying that if the advance was not paid at the end of the week, all the union men would cease work. As a result some 80 labourers found themselves collecting their first week’s strike pay of 9s from Mr William Paul, as agent of the Union, at a meeting on No-Mans-Land on Friday, 18th April, 1873. The speakers, including Mr G. Edwards12, spoke of the need for reconciliation, while William Paul read a letter from a labourer who had gone to Yorkshire where he had turned down agricultural work at 17s. a week because he could earn 22s. on other work.13 At a meeting of the Union at Bedford on the 22nd April14, Henry Wright, Esq., of St Johns College, Luton, reported on the situation at Sandridge. The labourer who had been sacked for speaking out at the No-Mans-Land meeting the previous June had been sent to Derby by the Union and was getting 25s a week. He said that 39 other men from the village have gone north, and the lowest wage any of them got was £1 per week.
It would seem that at least a third of the labourers went on strike, and possibly many more. Some farms were particularly hard hit, and farmers were advertising for labourers, to whom they claimed they offered a liberal wage. Thomas Smith, of Pound Farm, Sandridge, had employed 15 men and 7 boys at the time of the 1871 census, and all but William Gaylon went on strike15. The local farmers were worried by these developments, and on 26th April a meeting was held at the Peahen Hotel, St Albans, to discuss what action should be taken. They were led by Charles Higby Lattimore, of Wheathampstead, who said “the labourers of Wheathampstead were only waiting to see if the Sandridge men got any advantage, and if they found that these men broke down the resolution of their employers, they would have union-enlisting by the score.” He recommended that union members were given a week’s notice, and claimed that there was little difference between a unionist and a highwayman. His proposals were seconded by Jonathan Cox, of Hill End Farm, Sandridge, and plans were laid to hold a further meeting to create a farmer’s union in the area16. It is perhaps not surprising that Jonathan Cox’s shepherd, Oakley, was one of the labourers who left Sandridge for the Midlands shortly after the strike had started. In July Mr Cox took Mrs Oakley to court to attempt to regain possession of the cottage she still occupied as he needed it for a new shepherd.
The strike continued, and William Paul presided over another union meeting at No-Mans-Land on 16th May to rally the strikers, who may well have been demoralised by the lack of progress. The arguments about the conflicting interests of the farmers and the labourers continued in the correspondence columns of the local paper, but few of the letters were from agricultural workers, and unfortunately the paper does not reveal how, or when, the strike ended. William Paul continued to advertise wages of 20s to 30s a week in the Northern counties until August 30th, 1873. If the strike dragged on into 1874 the strike pay would have finished in July. This is because, in March 1874, the Newmarket Farmers’ Defences Association responded to a demand for an extra shilling with a lock-out, and within five weeks over 6,000 unionists were idle in Suffolk and North Essex. Farmers in adjacent areas followed suit, and by August 1874 the Union was unable to continue to hand out 9s a week strike pay.17
By the beginning of 1874, the Herts Advertiser had swung behind the establishment. In its review for 197318 it said that the attempts to sow the seeds of dissension between agricultural labourers and their employers has been made in this district in common with others, but its success has been but slight. True the labourer, in common with other people, has his grievances, but his wrongs have been exaggerated, and in quoting his position only one side has been looked at. It is not our wish to deprecate the value of his labour; but it must be acknowledged that in many instances where quotations have been made by public speakers such value has been over-estimated.
Despite the problems experienced in 1874, the Union continued, and in 1876 Joseph Arch, president of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union again visited the area. On 24th October he attended a tea and public meeting in a meadow near the Fiddle Public House, Hatfield. The following day there was an even bigger attendance at the meeting he addressed at the rear of the Park Hotel, No-Mans-Land. At this meeting the local union branch presented William Paul with a purse containing £6 12s “for the untiring and energetic services you have rendered during the last four years or more in the cause of the down-trodden sons of toil. And although we have been greatly benefited by your labours and the labours of other friends, we are not in a position to make you such an acknowledgement as we desire for the great loss you have sustained, and for the insults and abuse which you have had to bear on our behalf.”19
For memories of the agricultural workers’ life (in Harpenden), information on hiring fairs, etc. see:-
Edwin Grey, Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village, Harpenden & District Local History Society, 1977
... Strikes proved an ineffective weapon. Employers were able to supply the places of the strikers, either from general labourers who stood outside the National Union of Agricultural Labourers, or from the unemployed and casually employed population of towns. In July, 1874, after a prolonged struggle of six months, the Union suffered a severe defeat. Numbers as well as funds, began to dwindle. Inside the Union there was a split. Between it and the more recent Federal Union (1873) arose more or less open hostility. The disastrous period of 1875-1884 began to tell on the position of labourers, in regard to both amount of wages and to regularity of employment. ...
Ernle, Lord, English Farming Past and Present, 6th Edition, Heineman, London, 1961
For a detailed run up to the strike (but surprisingly not the strike itself) see:-
James Corbett, Secret City, McDermott Marketing, St Albans, 1993
For a survey of farm workers in the 19th century and a background to the strikes in 1873/4, see:-
Alan Armstrong, Farmworkers, Batsford, London, 1988
For background on rural life see:
Pamela Horn, Life & Labour in Rural England, 1760-1850, Macmillan Education, 1987
Pamela Horn, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1976
The following account is of more relevance to farms and the farmer, rather than the farm workers - but includes some material relating to labour and the Sandridge strike.
Nigel Agar, The Hertfordshire Farmer in the Age of Industrial Revolution
in Doris Jones-Baker, Hertfordshire in History, The Hertfordshire Local History Council, 1991
See also Nigel Agar Behind the Plough, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2005
Evidence given by Mr. J. B. Lawes, of Rothamsted, Harpenden, on 29th July, 1881.
57,600. Before we go into the question of the experimental part of your farm I would ask you whether the agricultural depression of the last few years has affected you to any extent? – In common with other agriculturalists it has certainly.
57,601. In what respect? – By the very bad crops that I have had, and the great injury done to my land by the wet, and by the growth of weeds.
57,602. What do you consider has been the primary cause of the depression? – The excessive wet and the low prices.
57,603. How many years do you consider that the agricultural depression has lasted? – Six years I consider it to be. …
57,613. To what other causes besides the weather do you attribute the depression in agriculture? – To low prices, and diseases of stock …
57,614. The low prices being attributable to foreign competition? – Yes. …
57,629. Has the expense of labour considerably increased in the last six years? – Yes, very considerably; during the last six years especially.
57,630. I wish to ascertain whether the cost of producing an acre of wheat has been increased by any increase in the price of wages or by the necessity of employing more labour than by the absolute increase of wages; I think the increase of wages took place before that,
57,631. Have wages declined again? – No.
57,632 To what extent have they increased? – I should say that the wages in my district certainly have increased 2s or 3s per week on the average.
57,633 When did the rise commence? – In 1872 or 1873 I think was the great rise.
57,634 Then that is a third reason why the farmers’ profits have been diminished? – Yes, certainly.
Reports from commissioners, inspectors and others (3) Agricultural interests continued; Session 6 January - 27th August, 1881; Volume XVII, 1881
Reprinted in British Parliamentary Papers, Agriculture, 17. Irish University Press.
2 Nigel Agar, The Hertfordshire Farmer in the Age of Industrial Revolution, in Hertfordshire in History , edited Doris Jones-Baker, The Hertfordshire Local History Council, 1991.
3 Commission on the employment of children, young persons and women in agriculture; Appendix Part II to second report; evidence from the assistant commissioners (1867). Reprinted in British Parliamentary Papers; Agriculture Volume 11, Irish University Press.
4 Official statistics, reported in Herts Advertiser, 13th April, 1872.
5 For further information on the national situation see Reg Groves, Sharpen the Sickle! The History of the Farm Workers’ Union, Porcupine Press, London, 1949, and Pamela Horn, Joseph Arch (1826-1919), The Farm Workers’ Leader, Roundwood Press, Kineton, 1971. An account of the local situation prior to, but not including, the strike, is given in James Corbett, Secret City, McDermott Marketing, St Albans, 1993.
7 Herts Advertiser, 15th June, 1872. Within two years of the formation of the National Union, over 50,000 agricultural labourers had been helped to emigrate to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.
8 Herts Advertiser, 3rd August, 1872
9 Herts Advertiser, 5th October, 1872
10 Bedfordshire Mercury, 5th October, 1872. Reprinted (with many other items relating to the Agricultural Labourers’ Union in Bedfordshire in Nigel E Agar, The Bedfordshire Farm Worker in the Nineteenth Century, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society Vol 60, 1981.) The Bedfordshire Times and Independent also printed a long account of Joseph Arch’s spech.
11 Herts Advertiser, 5th March, 1873
12 Probably George Edwards, miller at Kingsbury Mill, St Michael’s. (Kelly’s Directory for Herts, 1870)
13 Herts Advertiser, 26th April, 1873
14 Bedfordshire Mercury, 26th April, 1873
15 Thomas Smith’s Will, Probate 11th February, 1887, contains the bequest “to my foreman, William Gaylon (who was the only one on my farm who did not strike some years ago) the sum of fifty pounds.” Thomas Smith the son of the late Robert Smith, of Heath Farm.
16 Herts Advertiser, 3rd May, 1873. At a similar meeting in Dunstable it was agreed the union men should be dismissed, and that members of the United Farmers’ Association would be fined £5 each time they employed a man who had been dismissed because he was a union member. Bedfordshire Times & Independent, 26th April, 1873.
17 Alan Armstrong, Farmworkers: A Social and Economic History, 1770-1980, Batsford, London, 1988.
18 Herts Advertiser, 3rd January, 1874.
19 Herts Advertiser, 28th October, 1876. There is other evidence that William Paul was not liked by the establishment. In September, 1872, his son was prosecuted for trespassing “in search of game”. The following December William was prosecuted for allowing pigs to rout on the side of the road and in court he claimed that “His richer neighbours might do as they pleased, but he hardly dare set foot upon his own.” He again appeared before the court for allegedly letting a horse stray on the road in September, 1873, but this time escaped a fine. As William Paul was also the village carpenter it seems likely that he was boycotted by the local farmers and hence lost significant business by helping the Union.
See MANSELL, Colney Heath & Derbyshire, Late 19th Century for information on some farm labourers who relocated to Derbyshire.
If you can add to the information given above tell me.